Peter Watkins’ The War Game is a terrifying look at how our future could go horribly wrong.
On March 28th, 2016, the BFI will bring Peter Watkins’ controversial BBC productions Culloden (1964), a brilliant reconstruction of the famous battle of 1746, and the Academy Award-winning The War Game (1965), which was banned from TV screens for twenty years, to Blu-ray for the first time. Both films have been newly remastered to High Definition and will be presented together in a Dual Format Edition (also contains a DVD). An array of special features includes a new interview by film editor Michael Bradsell, who worked with Peter Watkins at the BBC, audio commentaries for both films and short films about each one.
Hailed as a breakthrough when it was first broadcast in 1964, Culloden – which brilliantly reconstructs the famous battle of 1746 – stunned viewers by approaching its historical subject matter in the style of contemporary TV news coverage. Watkins’ The War Game, about a limited nuclear attack on Kent, blended fact and fiction to create a disturbing vision of the personal and public consequences of such an attack. Banned from TV screens for twenty years, it was through its cinema release in 1966 – and its Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1967 – that it gained a loyal and vociferous following.
As Wikipedia effectively summarizes the narrative of The War Game, “filmed in black-and-white with a running time of just under 50 minutes, The War Game depicts the prelude to and the immediate weeks of the aftermath to a Soviet nuclear attack against Britain. A Chinese invasion of South Vietnam starts the war; tensions escalate when the United States authorizes tactical nuclear warfare against the Chinese. Although Soviet and East German forces threaten to invade West Berlin if the US does not withdraw that decision, the US does not acquiesce to communist demands and the invasion takes place; two US Army divisions attempt to fight their way into Berlin to counter this, but the Russian and East German forces overwhelm them in conventional battle.
In order to turn the tide, the US president authorizes the NATO commanders to use their tactical nuclear weapons, and they soon do so. An escalating nuclear war results, during which larger Russian strategic IRBMs are launched at Britain. The film remarks that many Soviet missiles were, at the time, believed to be liquid-fueled and stored above ground, making them vulnerable to attack, and hypothesizes that in any nuclear crisis, the USSR would be obliged to fire all of them as early as possible in order to avoid their destruction by counter-attack, hence the rapid progression from tactical to strategic nuclear exchange.
In the chaos just before the attack, towns and cities are evacuated and residents forced to move to the country. The Medway town of Rochester is struck by an off-target missile aimed at RAF Manston, a target which, along with the Maidstone barracks, is mentioned in scenes showing the immediate effects of the attack. The missile’s explosion causes instant flash blindness of those nearby, followed by a firestorm caused by the blast wave. Later, society collapses due to overwhelming radiation sickness and the depletion of food and medical supplies.
There is widespread psychological damage and consequently a rising occurrence of suicide. The country’s infrastructure is destroyed; the British Army burns corpses, while police shoot looters during food riots. The provisional government becomes increasingly disliked due to its rationing of resources and use of lethal force, and anti-authority uprisings begin.
Civil disturbance and obstruction of government officers become capital offenses; two men are shown being executed by firing squad for such acts. Several bewildered orphan children are briefly featured, questioning whether they have any future and desire to be ‘nothing.’ The film ends bleakly on the first Christmas Day after the nuclear war, held in a ruined church with a vicar who futilely attempts to provide hope to his traumatized congregation. The closing credits include an instrumental version of Silent Night.”
Indeed, as Roger Ebert noted in his review of The War Game, “Watkins achieves remarkable authenticity. Using a hand-held camera and grainy newsreel film, he shows firemen dying of gas poisoning as the flames explode. The heat generated in the center of a firestorm, we are told, reaches 800 degrees. It creates an updraft so powerful that trees, automobiles and human bodies are sucked into it by 150 M.P.H. winds. All oxygen is drained from the atmosphere. As the voice continues, we see firemen plucked from the ground and literally blown into the flames.”
While Culloden is an excellent “you are there” recounting of the famous battle of that name, it’s Watkins’ The War Game which is the indispensable item on this disc. Commissioned and produced by the BBC, The War Game was nevertheless turned down flat for screening on British television at the last minute, right before the scheduled screening date of October 7, 1965. The BBC, in making the decision, said that “the effect of the film has been judged by the BBC to be too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting.” Watkins, predictably, was furious.
With a television screening thus blocked, the film was then released in the United States on a theatrical double bill with, of all things, Luis Buñuel’s allegorical featurette Simon of the Desert (1965), which has a running time of 42 minutes – so that the two films, presented together, constituted the length of an average single feature film. The “one two” punch of the films stunned audiences at time, and as mentioned above, The War Game was so realistic that it actually won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1967 (emphasis added) – all the more astonishing because it is entirely a fiction film, although the possibility of such a war happening was, at the time, very real indeed.
Using non actors and actual locations, The War Game is perhaps the most realistic film ever made about the potential effects of nuclear war, and as Roger Ebert commented at the end of his four star review of the film, “they should string up bedsheets between the trees and show The War Game in every public park. It should be shown on television, perhaps right after one of those half-witted war series in which none of the stars ever gets killed. And, somehow, it should be shown to the leaders of the world’s nuclear powers, the men who have their fingers on the doomsday button. If the button is ever pushed, the world’s nuclear arsenal contains the equivalent of 20,000,000 tons of TNT apiece for you, and for me, and for every blessed person on this earth.”
The War Game - another classic film brilliantly restored by the British Film Institute.